This year my New Year’s resolution was to buckle down and read more of the books I have piling up by authors I haven’t read before. My first book in this year’s resolution mission was A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss.
A Conspiracy of Paper (winner of an Edgar Award) actually should have been included in the list of books read in 2009, but December was kind of a busy month for me and I never quite got around to finishing the book before New Year’s. Oh, who am I kidding, I wasn’t even half-way done with the book at New Year’s. But I did, finally, finish the book.
In A Conspiracy of Paper, our protagonist Benjamin Weaver is a thief-taker and former pugilist living in London in 1719. He’s busy building his business when he’s drawn into a murder investigation. This wouldn’t be so odd, but it isn’t every day that Weaver is hired to look into his own father’s death. At first Weaver doesn’t think there’s anything to look into because his father’s death (run down by a cab) was ruled an accident, but the more time he spends looking into the matter, the more his own life is put at risk. As he continues his investigation Benjamin Weaver finds his father’s death is connected to shady dealings in Exchange Alley and stock fraud, hence the conspiracy of paper. And it’s a conspiracy that Weaver is going to have to blow wide open if he hopes to survive his investigation.
In the notes at the back of the book, David Liss explains that he got the idea for this book when he was doing research at Columbia University for his doctoral thesis, and that explained a lot to me. I sometimes cringe when I find out that a book was written by a person who was inspired to write a novel while working on graduate and doctoral research in some incredibly dry topic because there’s this tendency to include every dry historical tidbit in the book, whether or not it moves the story forward. That said, I thought that Liss showed some admirable restraint. Even when he did succumb to sharing more of his research than was necessary or interesting, I could, eventually, see how it related to the story’s plot. Most of the time.
Overall, I liked A Conspiracy of Paper. For a book of some length, Liss managed to keep things moving steadily. His descriptions of 18th century London are interesting and grimy, you really get a feel for why the average life expectancy was so short when people spent their days trudging through feces, whoring, and swilling gin. The sheer lawlessness of London was something of a surprise too.
As for the plot of the book, it was reasonably complicated and intricate but, and this was a nice surprise, in the end it seemed plausible. Weaver hardly knows if he is coming or going through most of his investigation because there are so many people involved and he doesn’t know whether or not he can trust the information he’s given. Fortunately, Liss gives his protagonist a good friend to help him weed through the information. As a plus, Weaver’s friend Elias is also great for some much needed comic relief, constantly offering him the sound medical advice that he needs to be bled.
A Conspiracy of Paper is a good book for people who like historical mysteries and can appreciate the research that goes into them. The action is good but slightly more graphic than those who favor a nice, clean cozy-style mystery will probably like. Oh, and it is a bit on the bawdy side too with more whoring than even Tiger Woods could manage. But its a pretty good mystery and worth a read. I’m looking forward to reading more about the adventures of Benjamin Weaver.
Books by David Liss:
- A Conspiracy of Paper (2001)
- The Coffee Trader (2003)
- A Spectacle of Corruption (2004)
- The Ethical Assassin (2006)
- The Whiskey Rebels (2008)
- The Devil’s Company (2009)